Sometimes a simple newspaper column can take its writer to surprising places.
For instance, after my column on the Siamese Twins was published last month, I got a call from Henry Bunker who lives in Mebane. His brother, Fred, read the column and passed it to Henry. “We’re descendants of the twins,” Henry said, “and if you’d like to learn more, you ought to come to the Bunker family’s reunion in Mount Airy on the last weekend in July. I can invite you.”
I couldn’t resist. I still had lots of questions. The chance to be with hundreds of the descendants of Chang and Eng seemed to be a gift from heaven.
Last Friday and Saturday, talking with family members and their friends, I got lots of answers, some of them conflicting, along with a host of other questions that I had not considered earlier.
Here are some of my questions, along with answers or possible answers.
1. After learning that a large group of representatives from the Embassy of Thailand in Washington would be treating the Bunker reunion attendees to a catered Thai meal, I asked why are the Thais so supportive? A top embassy official, Pattrawan Vechasart, explained that the twins were a tangible symbol of the friendship between the U.S. and Thailand, formerly Siam. Chang and Eng were the first Thai or Siamese immigrants to the U.S., arriving here in 1829, before the two countries had established diplomatic relations.
2. After touring in the cities of North America and Europe, why did they choose to settle in rural North Carolina? “They liked to hunt,” is one of the answers. Apparently, the opportunity to live in a less densely populated place appealed to them. And, of course, the land in Wilkes and Surry counties is beautiful. Most importantly, they found an area where they could live “on their own.” One of the Bunker descendants told me that the twins gave friends small tracts of land at the edges of the twins’ farms, assuring that they would have friendly neighbors.
3. Did either or both abuse alcohol? In later life it is agreed that Chang had a drinking problem. Several Eng descendants told me that Chang’s drinking did not affect Eng.
4. What was their religion? Christian? Buddhist? Or something else? The twins helped build the White Cross Baptist Church building. Their families attended and supported that church. But there is no record of the twins being baptized, becoming church members, or proclaiming their faith. They are buried in the graveyard behind the church.
5. What can you do to experience the Siamese Twins in Mount Airy if you are not invited to the reunion? On U.S. 601 south of Mount Airy, you can cross the Eng and Chang bridge over Stewart’s Creek, which was the dividing line between Chang and Eng’s property. To the west, across the cornfields, you might be able to see Chang’s house, restored by Kester Sink whose deceased wife was Chang’s granddaughter. South of I-74 on the grounds of the Mayberry Campground is a sturdy house built by Eng’s grandson, William Oliver Bunker, in 1900. These houses are not open for visitors. Unfortunately, Eng’s house burned many years ago.
The White Plains Baptist Church graveyard is not far away on Old U.S. 601. In downtown Mount Airy are informative exhibits featuring the twins at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History and, next to the Andy Griffith Museum, at the Surry Arts Council, where the Council’s executive director, Tanya B. Jones, an Eng descendent, is in charge.
Or you can just walk down any street in Mount Airy and you are almost certain to pass by some of the twins’ great-great-grandchildren.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.